How can your airport fill up its empty hangars? Perhaps the most effective method would be to send a pilot or two into the local middle schools and high schools to tell a few stories, pop a slideshow up on the smartboard, and invite a whole bunch of the kids out to the airport. Let me provide a little context for that idea. It’s valid, believe me. But as fixes go, this isn’t a quick one — nor should it be.
In the late 1930s the United States faced a real problem. There were relatively few airports, very few airplanes, and a shockingly small number of pilots. World War II changed all that. The Army was forced to ramp up from hundreds of pilots to hundreds of thousands of pilots — and they had to do it in a tremendously short time-frame.
Today, the United States faces a similar, but different problem. We have a reasonable number of airports, an abundance of airplanes, and a rapidly shrinking pilot population. That spells trouble for a variety of reasons, most of which have not yet been recognized by the non-aviation public.
While the variables are different, the challenge of filling the shortage is every bit as serious as it was in 1937. A country that puts insufficient emphasis on the value of aviation puts its long-term economic future at risk. That’s not just hyperbole, either. It’s a statement of fact. Grab a globe, pick out a country where aviation is unloved and finds no support, and you will have found a Third World country where the outlook is bleak. That is not a future I would care to be a part of.
Fortunately, we can arrest this trend. No, we can’t stop the progression of time, and we can’t make our World War II veteran population live forever in a perpetual state of youthful vigor. But we can realistically assess our strengths and challenges so that we can craft solutions that will actually work.
This growing pilot void is becoming evident across the country in the form of empty hangars. While municipalities have added hangars in large numbers over the past several decades, they often did it for all the wrong reasons. They mistakenly believed that pilots were coming out of the woodwork, buying airplanes and demanding ever more hangars. More often than not, the increased demand was a combination of a relatively good economy and a pilot population that was mature enough and affluent enough to afford an airplane of their own at long last. Business aviation also figured into the need for available hangar space.
Those same pilots, the World War II generation who brought their skills to the civilian market after leaving the military, are now losing their medicals, giving up flying, and visiting the airport less and less. They are not being replaced in large numbers, because society as a whole doesn’t perceive a need for pilots the way they did in the 1940s. They believe the military will be served well enough by UAVs. Simultaneously, they seem to believe that the airline pilots who shuttle them to their vacation get-aways and business conventions are drawn from an inexhaustible supply of airplane pilots in waiting.
You and I know better, of course. Airline pilots have traditionally come from the ranks of the military, at least in part. Yet the military is training fewer pilots. Airline pilots also come from the ranks of general aviation, which is dwindling down now to the point where there are probably well under a quarter million active pilots in the United States. A simple mental calculation suggests that we are running short on an important skill set, and not doing much to replace the owners of those skills.
This growing dilemma is almost entirely the result of a simple misunderstanding. That misunderstanding can be dispelled simply enough. The truth is this: People are not born to be pilots. They are born to be little boys and girls who are happy to watch television and play video games. They’re more inclined to throw a ball around, or braid each other’s hair than head down to the airport in an effort to navigate their way to a functional gate so they can get inside and start the process. And even if they are fortunate enough to find the front desk at the FBO, they’ve still got a bushel basket full of problems to solve before they get their wings.
People have to be inspired, motivated, educated, mentored, challenged, and congratulated in order to make a successful transition from the crib to the cockpit. It can be done, of course, as it has been in the past. But the right incentive is required. Fortunately we have it on hand. It’s you. It’s me, too. It’s all of us.
Let’s assume there are a quarter million active pilots in the United States. That’s not enough to keep the props turning and the turbines burning into the coming decades. But if every one of those active pilots committed to the idea of bringing one new person in and helping them to become a pilot — we’d be up to a half a million active pilots very shortly. And if every one of those new pilots made the same commitment, we’d be over a million by the end of the decade. Now that would turn the trend around, wouldn’t it?
So the question is not why the non-pilot population doesn’t understand us better. It’s really a question of why we don’t get out and tell our story with the kind of enthusiasm we feel when the nose pitches up and our wheels leave the ground. You don’t have to be a professional speaker, you just have to be honest and care about the future of aviation. Don’t simply give a kid a ride. That’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t often result in a new pilot coming into the fold. Become a true mentor. Find someone who really shows an interest in flying, and personally help them become a pilot.
You’ll feel better about yourself, I have no doubt. Your airport manager will be pretty darned happy when those hangars start filling back up, too. And they most certainly will fill up. It may take a while, but more pilots translates to more hangar rentals, without a doubt. So get out there and tell a story. You’re a pilot for goodness sake. You’ve got to have at least a dozen absolutely fantastic stories to share. And who doesn’t like having a room full of kids shuffling out of a room, muttering to each other under their breath, “That guy is so cool. We should become pilots too, don’cha think?”
Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to FlightMonkeys.com. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.
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